By Drazen Jorgic
KAMPALA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Rwanda and Great Lakes neighbors on Tuesday to stop supporting Congolese rebels as regional leaders met in Uganda to discuss ways to end the insurgency in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Clinton's call, made in South Africa during her latest stop on an African tour, maintained international pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to withdraw any backing for the Tutsi-led M23 rebels, whose advances have thrown the volatile, ethnically-mixed east of Congo back into conflict, displacing thousands of civilians.
The Rwandan government has strenuously denied allegations by U.N. experts that its military officials have provided equipment and recruits for the M23 rebellion. Uganda has also rejected similar allegations that its soldiers have backed the movement.
Clinton, speaking at a news conference in Pretoria, praised a two-day meeting of Great Lakes region heads of state held in the Ugandan capital Kampala this week to discuss solutions to the Congo crisis. They could include the creation of a neutral international military force to fight Congolese rebels.
"We urge all the states of the region including Rwanda to work together to cut off support for the rebels in the M23, to disarm them and bring their leaders to justice," Clinton said.
Donors including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany have suspended some of their financial aid to Rwanda over the accusations that it is backing the rebels. Rwanda says it is being used as a scapegoat for the chaos in eastern Congo.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila are due to meet in Kampala and join the talks with their regional neighbors about the size and composition of the anti-rebel force, which was broadly agreed by them at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.
"The mere fact that Kabila has flown in here and that Kagame is here is testimony of how seriously they take this matter," Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem told Reuters.
As uneasy neighbors, Congo and Rwanda have gone to war with each other in the past.
Eastern Congo's enduring conflict, which has killed, maimed and displaced several million civilians over nearly two decades, has its roots in Tutsi-Hutu ethnic and political enmities dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Kigali's backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two crippling wars.
Clinton said in Pretoria she hoped the nations taking part in the Kampala talks would show "restraint and mutual respect for sovereignty". She said several "renegade criminal bands", including M23, had left a trail of killings, rape and rights abuses across eastern Congo over a period of years.
She said Washington regarded the conflict in Congo's east as a serious threat to the security of the Great Lakes region.
M-23 ranks have been swelled by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army who walked out into the bush in support of fugitive Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges.
The U.N. has more than 17,000 peacekeepers in the Congo but has often been hard pressed to halt fighting and protect civilians in the vast, unruly central African state which produces gold, copper, tin, diamonds and other minerals.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Pretoria; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Mark Heinrich)